I was blessed earlier in my life to have been mentored by truly wonderful professors like Jesuit Dr. W. Norris Clarke. He was a proponent of both Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. “Truth,” he told me, was the “conformity of the mind and being.” He believed that you can arrive at truth only through a careful and deliberative process of either inductive or deductive thinking. One can be confident of a correct result, he exclaimed, if the process is intellectually honest (not colored by a desired outcome) and if your premises in both instances are valid.
When a person in authority makes a claim, our tendency is to believe it. However, we must always ask ourselves a number of questions: 1) What are his/her premises and how valid was the methodology employed? 2) Does this person have a particular expertise in this field? 3) Does this person have a history of truthfulness? 4) Does this person have an overriding interest that may call into question his/her conclusions?
The need for a careful and open search for the truth exists not only in philosophical and scientific endeavors, but in our governmental and political spheres as well. Public policy, which very well may affect the fate of millions, not to mention the future of the planet itself, must have at its foundation facts that are the products of a process that is not contaminated by politics or ego. When politics interferes with truth-telling, the results can be catastrophic.
Astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus had to retract his theory that the Earth revolved around the sun for fear of being branded a heretic and waited until he was on his deathbed before publishing his revolutionary work. Dictatorships in Germany, Italy and Russia, as well as third-world countries, were all buttressed by false propagandistic claims designed to suppress all forms of resistance.
A vibrant press, relentless in its quest to keep our politicians honest, is our strongest safeguard against tyranny. More recently, President George W. Bush led us into a disastrous invasion of Iraq based on a false premise that we now understand was the product of political rather than factual considerations. It was the press that fleshed out his mistake. Bush’s error in judgment proved to be costly in terms of lives and money, as well as leading to the destabilization of the region and the emergence of ISIS.
In this age of the internet, with legitimate news competing with false claims, it is more imperative than ever that our government be truthful, deliberative and reliable. Our sentimental attachment to the truth is embedded in the very foundation of our republic and it is the reason we have such an important standing in the world. Disinformation is not an American tradition, certainly not with an active and strong press. In his fascinating book, “What Happened,” former Bush press secretary Scott McClellan chronicles his role as a link between an inquiring press and the Bush White House. He fondly recalled the advice that Bush advisor Karen Hughes gave him as he assumed his role: “Your most important job, in my view, will be to make sure the president maintains his credibility with the American people.” That credibility was shaken and never restored when it became clear that his invasion of Iraq was based on a lie.
It is this historical backdrop that makes the beginnings of the Trump presidency so alarming. Many Republicans have suggested to me that there is a “method to his madness” and not, as I feared, a madness to his method. Once Mr. Trump took office, “We would see a different side of him.” During the campaign, his truthfulness rating was somewhere around 33 percent (according to non-partisan groups), but that was then and this is now. You are going to see a “new Trump,” they ecstatically predicted.
However, in the first few days in office, instead of relishing his remarkable rise to power, the same old pugilistic Trump sent out his own press secretary Sean Spicer to promote two lies: the size of his inauguration crowd and the suggestion that his dispute with the CIA was a figment of the press’ imagination. Mr. Trump then followed up with the assertion that reporters were “among the most dishonest people on Earth.” Even more alarming was his advisor Kellyanne Conway’s contention on “Meet the Press.” When faced with Mr. Spicer’s indefensible claims, being the loyal warrior to the end, Ms. Conway stated that these falsehoods were merely “alternative facts.” After making this incredulous allegation, Ms. Conway then used Trump’s honed technique of attacking the messenger, “You’ve got a 14 percent approval rating in the media that you’ve earned. You want to push back on us?”
Then, only days into his presidency and still unwilling to accept the fact that he lost the popular vote by almost three million, President Trump again trumpeted (without evidence) his “alternative facts” claim that 3 to 5 million illegal votes were cast (somehow he knows they all were against him). Utilizing the series of questions I mentioned earlier, let us examine his claim:
1) Premises and methodology? There is absolutely no evidence of any widespread issues with voting anywhere in the country. A few elected Republicans have had the courage to chide the president against continuing these assertions, which undermine the public’s trust in our democratic process. Yet, 52 percent of Republicans polled have bought Trump’s assertion even without any evidence. 2) Expertise? He possesses none and those who do say he is off base in his contention. 3) History of truthfulness? He called Hillary Clinton the devil, literally. He claimed that she and Obama were the founders of ISIS. He was given more “Pinocchio’s” that any politician in history times two. 4) Does he have an interest? His bruised ego does.
Father Clark passed away a few years ago. I know if he were alive today he would join me in praying that our new leadership in Washington, like good philosophers, exercise deliberation, restraint, reason and, yes, even a touch of humility in determining the real facts. Our country deserves nothing less.